I had a weird experience the other night.
First: a bit of set up.
Like many, I am upset by the rampant racism that I see portrayed in the media. I shake my head and cluck my tongue and give my money to nonprofit groups.
Also, I am white. Like super white, and I don’t encounter racism day to day. And the friends I have in minority groups seldom complain to me about racism. Which isn’t to say they don’t experience it, but that it isn’t on my radar in a personal sense, but more as an abstract thing that happens to other people in other places.
At least until the other night.
Stage set, let’s get to the story.
It is evening, music playing, people shouting laughing; a crowded restaurant bar in Fresno. . I approach the bar to order another drink. Behind the row of drinkers there is another row of people pressed together, waiting.
And a small little spot opens up between a woman nursing something red and a “bro” in a ball cap staring glumly at his phone.
I gesture to the spot to the woman standing next to me and say, “I think you were here first.” She nods and squeezes in.
The bartender approaches and… and then what it looked like to me was that she, the bartender, glances at the woman who just got the spot and then looks over her to me and says, “Another one?” and I, happy at being noticed nod and smile and shout out my order.
Freeze frame. Does it matter that the woman clearly at the bar in front of me is black? That I am white? that the bartender is white?
Asian, I am super pleased to be singled out and so when I answer, “Yeah, another cherry bomb” (I told you I am super white right? Don’t judge my girly drink), I don’t really give it much thought.
The woman in front of me turns and looks at me… and the look on her face makes me suddenly realize that I just cut in front of her while standing behind her.
“Wait,” I say to her and to myself, “did she just skip you?”
She nods and turns back around and I am thunderstruck. Did that just happen?
The spot next to her opens and I squeeze next to her. I flag down the bartender by leaning waaaay over the bar. She hasn’t started getting my drink yet, “Hey,” I say catching her eye, “she was first, so my cherry bomb and whatever she wants.”
I look at the woman next to me, she is looking at me with a look that I read as a mix of surprise and disgust.
“What are you having?”
Again I lean and flag and make a fool of myself to the harried bartennder, “She wants a beer, get her’s first.”
Again the bartender nods.
But she brings my drink first (to be fair, she might have already started it, I do’t know) and I don’t touch it. I stand there awkwardly while she asks the woman next to me what kind of beer and then I continue to stand there awkwardly as the beer is poured and delivered.
“I got this” I tell the woman, “I’m sorry”
She accepts the offer and rewards me with a smile and a touch on the arm.
I take my drink and return to my friends… and I wonder.
Was that racism?
Now, I have been told by people who know way more than I do about such things, that since I had an open tab, the bartender would probably have served me before anyone standing in front of me because I am a guaranteed sale / order / tip. I’m not sure I agree with that as I have had many tabs over the years and I don’t think it has ever gotten me special service… at least none that I noticed. (Maybe I have been going to the wrong bars)
But even if that is the case, the woman in front of me didn’t know that. All she knew is that she was first and she got literally overlooked by the white girl in front of her for the white girl behind her.
I can see how she would be angry, heck, I’m angry on her behalf.
And I have enough liberal guilt that I can’t stop thinking about it. Yes, it was a minor thing. Yes, it might not have been a bona fide “thing” but it felt like a thing and it served as a reminder to me that privilege comes with responsibility. It is my job as a person of privilege to be vigilant and to do what I can, and I hope that next time I react faster in the interest of fairness.